INTERVIEW: The Decemberists (January 2011)
Pilgrims accompanying The Decemberists on their ongoing trek into the great musical unknown may find themselves pleasantly wrong-footed by the band’s latest album The King Is Dead, which marks perhaps as much of a U-turn as it’s possible to make within the folk genre - particularly in relation to their last release, 2009’s ambitiously theatrical 17-song suite, The Hazards Of Love.
If The King Is Dead does have an encompassing theme, it’s inextricably linked to the circumstances of the album’s conception, being recorded in ‘Pendarvia’ – a secluded, 80-acre countryside estate situated outside of Portland, Oregon. The locale’s rustic ambience is audible in each of the ten tracks, most notably in the twilight, old-time country feel of Rise To Me and the poetic June Hymn, which could almost be classed as the band’s first ‘sitting-on-a-porch’ song.
Notable guest performers on the album include Gillian Welch (providing an Emmylou Harris-style vocal foil to Meloy’s lead), together with legendary Georgian jangler Peter Buck – a happy result of Meloy penning several songs which he cheerfully admits to being “out-and-out homages” to R.E.M. It’s not hard to see why: Calamity Song pulses to an early Bill Berry drum beat as acoustic guitars pick out ringing hook-lines in the style of Talk About The Passion, while the coded political commentary of album highlight This Is Why We Fight could sit comfortably alongside the likes of Fall On Me and Cuyahoga on Lifes Rich Pageant. (Don’t tell anyone, but the chorus of lead single Down By The Water also offers a chord-for-chord likeness of The One I Love).
I got on the blower to Meloy in the middle of an all-day session of Canadian promo for the album, just one day before it improbably entered the US chart at #1. For the meantime though, I’ve got twenty minutes and we’re against the clock. Let’s go!
Word! If The Hazards of Love was The Decemberists’ ‘British’ folk album, would you say this is your ‘American’ folk record?
Uh, yeah, I think that would probably be safe to say. I think that the influences on this record draw more from the American folk tradition than the British, and The Hazards of Love was influenced not only by the British folk revival but was largely based on it.
Gram Parsons famously made that comment about ‘cosmic American music’ – a tradition of slightly skewed Americana that seems to have run through him, The Band, The Byrds, R.E.M. and beyond… do you see where the band are at now as part of that trajectory or lineage?
Yeah, well, I think that a lot of stuff on here owes a lot to Gram Parsons and that kind of West Coast ‘hippy country’. That’s what I grew up listening to – my intro to country music was not from your more ‘traditional’ output, you know: the Nashville country. My parents were really into a lot of that Bakersfield and Southern California, Laurel Canyon country: Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, The Byrds, Bob Dylan… Marshall Tucker Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, stuff like that. So that’s really what I grew up listening to; that’s sort of the soundtrack of my early childhood. And so that music is definitely in my bones, for sure, and I think it definitely comes out in this record.
The first thing that struck me when I heard it was how compact and direct it is – it feels like a bit of an inverse reaction against the last record in many ways. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah – I think in a way it’s a reaction in my head to the last three records that we’ve done. I think probably the last four or five years of our career we’ve been just kind of expanding and expanding and expanding, casting and experimenting with how far we can go with a sort of over-the-top, cinematic approach to writing and arranging. And I think this was like a really quick kind of ‘in-breath’ after all that; it just really made sense. The songs lent themselves to a more economical approach. And it was just where my head was at, too – I just liked the idea of trying to make a kind of lean and mean record, and that’s sort of what came out. I mean, really one of the only kind of rules that we set for ourselves was ‘Okay let’s try to make this short’; let’s try to make this fit nicely onto two sides of a piece of vinyl. Because everything we’ve done from Picaresque on, those are double-records, even if it not by traditional standards of ‘What is a double-record?’ – everything’s a double-record! But it pushes, like, 45 minutes, which is what most records do these days. So really it was as much trying to fit to the medium as it was trying to accomplish some sort of concept.
Like you said, it felt like the band had been progressing towards something like The Hazards of Love for quite a while - did you feel like you’d maybe exhausted that particular mode of narrative and character-driven songwriting on that album?
No, I don’t feel like I’d exhausted it – I just didn’t see myself doing that over and over. I think that doing a full-record concept is not the most comfortable way for me to work – it felt, even at the time I was writing it, that it was kind of a ‘one-time’ or rare experiment. It was as much of an opportunity for me to challenge my own way of thinking about music and way of writing, as it was trying to satisfy some sort of artistic or creative itch. And so doing The King Is Dead is sort of more typically how I would write, you know: just writing songs as they come, and once I’d amassed enough decent ones then we’d go and make a record. Whereas with The Hazards of Love, any song I was writing that didn’t fit the narrative kind of had to be shelved. And I had to sit down, and I wrote that thing from start to finish – the first song being the first song written, and the last song being the last song written. So it was as much of an experiment in form or in process as it was an experiment in, like, a ‘finished product’.
I remember watching you perform The Hazards of Love live and thinking that it must have been such hard work – you couldn’t really ‘deviate from the script’ at all, as it was so tightly put together. Are you looking forward to being able to have a bit more freedom with this record when you play live again?
I guess so – I mean, it’s going to be going back to how we’ve always played, and doing The Hazards of Love tour was a nice break from that: having this project every night, this piece that we would focus on, and we knew that it would be the same every night. You know, I never really got sick of it, I really enjoyed doing it that way – it just felt like a completely different kind of setlist, a different kind of show… and doing kind of ‘mixed bag’ stuff, it’ll be fun to get back to it, but it’ll feel more conventional, for sure.
Seeing how and where the album was recorded, it has a very rustic feel to it – is this a ‘nature’ record, by any chance?
Yeah, definitely! I mean, a lot of our records are ‘nature’ records, you know – I think that the woods loom as large on this record as on The Hazards of Love, and the ocean has been a part of a lot of records. I guess that’s just where my bed of songwriting ends up, you know, is being affected by my immediate natural world. But maybe this one it’s a little more apparent – my wife and I two years ago moved sort of outside of town, up in this neighbourhood tucked into the woods a little bit. That definitely spurred a lot of thinking, and a lot of different ways of songwriting.
Given the range of instruments within the band – upright bass, accordion, mandolin etc – is it kind of a surprise to you that this is the first time you’ve got round to exploring this sort of music and making what you’ve described as your “barn record”?
Yeah. I mean, it’s something we’ve really threatened doing ever since Picaresque – I think once we started availing ourselves of as many instruments and tracks as we possibly could, you know, building something. And we’d walk away from it going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it’ - The Infanta on Picaresque has, like, 64 tracks on it! And after that record, walking away and being like, ‘Okay, next one in a barn, we’re going to do it in two weeks, it’s just going to be stripped down’ – but then we went ahead and made two records which pushed what I think we were doing on Picaresque a little bit beyond. So I think this time it really felt right to make good on that promise.
Gillian Welch and, perhaps most prominently, Peter Buck both make appearances on the album. Is it strange being able to call up someone who was a bit of a boyhood hero for you growing up?
[Laughs] Yeah! It’s a trip, for sure. I think that’s one of the nice things about our little bit of success, you know – being able to meet one’s heroes is a pretty mind-blowing thing. I never thought my life would be long enough to spend any time with these people, let alone play with them. That said, Peter is really a pretty down-to-earth guy – he’s not remotely untouchable. He’s aware of his legendary status, but it doesn’t seem to have affected him that much; I think he’s happy to kind of scrap it out with bands like ours! And I think the fact that I was writing songs that were so heavily influenced by his own playing, he was sort of flattered by it and just kept saying: “Well, I stole everything I know from The Byrds!”, so…
What’s the most star-struck you’ve ever got around someone? Who’s reduced you to a gibbering schoolboy?
I think the first time I met Robyn Hitchcock was when I was at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, and he was just coming out of the bathroom. And I was kind of waiting in line and I saw him – I was loaded too, it was pretty late! – and I just stopped him and just, like, threw my arms around him. And he was very kind about that – he didn’t think that was creepy or anything…
My favourite song on the album is This is Why We Fight – it might be the fact that it recalls R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant in tone and carries that baggage with it, but it seems to have a covert political message built into it. Is that really off the mark?
Uh, no – there’s something there, for sure, I mean, obviously: ‘This is why we fight’. It would hopefully make sense to anyone who had felt like they’d had any kind of struggle and had questioned why they continue to do it if they’re pushed back again. I think of it as being maybe a summoning of courage a little bit, you know, when you feel like there’s too many obstacles. So yeah, that’s certainly there.
Is it difficult in the current climate to not ‘do’ politics, even in a satirical or jocular way as you perhaps have in the past on songs like 16 Military Wives or Valerie Plame?
Yeah. I guess I never thought of myself as a particularly political songwriter, but it tends to come out, I think, depending on my headspace. Over the course of the last ten years of the band I feel like I’ve become more politically aware, and I began to establish more of a sort of social and political identity for myself, and have become more secure in what my views are. And I think that probably inevitably comes out in the songs.
When I last spoke to you, we talked about the ‘community theatre’ elements of the band – a few bands who’ve made similarly ambitious albums over the last few years have taken the plunge, so I wanted to ask you: have you considered doing Decemberists: The Musical?
[Laughs] I don’t know that I would ever take a record and turn it into a musical, but I grew up doing community theatre, I did theatre at college, and I’m a fan of certain kinds of musical theatre. So I would definitely try and… I think I’ve even kind of been roped into at least working on some kind of theatrical project. But I don’t think it would be taking a record and turning it into… these records were not really intended to be musicals, they were intended to be records. But I’m excited to try and write in that vein, for sure!
Here’s my closing gambit, then. Are you familiar with ‘Multiverse’ Theory?
The Multiverse – that there’s many different universes, all being parallel?
Right, and the outcome of each hinges on one specific factor changing. So my premise is this: in the early 1980s, The Replacements were snapped up by a major label and told to clean up their act, eventually becoming a Monkees-style boy-band. R.E.M. and The Smiths saw this as a fast-track to success and promptly followed suit. So Let It Be, Reckoning and The Queen Is Dead were never made - those three albums simply never existed. In that parallel reality, what would life be like for Colin Meloy?
[Laughs] Hahahaha! God… I would probably be working at, like, a hippy bakery in Zula, Montana, and wondering if there was something out there that I’d somehow missed! But overall, feeling fairly content, I think…
The King is Dead is available now on Rough Trade.